May 7, 1993, Forward

George Segal’s Silhouetted World

A sculptor

Deep within the vast former chicken coop he uses as his studio, George Segal’s first sculpture, “The Legend of Lot,” stands deathly still —the progenitor of hundreds of plaster cast figures the artist has sent forth from this spot over the past three decades. Repeatedly likened to fossilized Pompeians caught by the lava flows from Vesuvius— eruption in some moment of daily routine, most of Mr. Segal’s life-size sculptures immortalize late-20th century Americans in ritualistic settings like the dinner table, the subway, the park bench or the conjugal bed. The painter Mark Rothko called an early Segal a “walk-in Hopper,” and his recent pieces still reverberate with a harrowing loneliness. Mr. Segal’s latest works, on view at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery through May 15, explore many of the same concerns that have long occupied him. But the figures seem to be growing increasingly refined, with greater attention to detail, lighting and their placement among an austere arrangement of real objects. A visit to the studio outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, reveals an unexpected range of other work, including a new series of pastel drawings and black and white photographs. Mr. Segal, who began his artistic career as a painter, plans to exhibit a sequence of the photos at SoHo’s Howard Greenberg Gallery in October. Characterized by richly varying light and shadow, in a manner similar to his environmental sculptures, the photographs were shot in inhospitable locales like the Port Authority bus terminal, along 42nd Street and in an abandoned New Jersey amusement park. “I’m known as the fellow who makes those white figures. Meanwhile, while I have my private life, I’ve been doing all my private thinking,” Mr. Segal told the Forward in an interview at the farm site where he first moved decades ago in a failed bid at raising poultry. “The whole thing has been a meandering of asking lots of questions.” Now 68, Mr. Segal frequently visits the nearby metropolis, saying he is “forever baffled by the grimness and vitality of New York.” He is also busily recording the physical aging process of himself, his wife Helen, friends and other contemporaries. As his models, they periodically allow themselves to be wrapped up in plaster-soaked bandages from which the sculptures are made. Mr. Segal’s urge to evoke body language, texture, the urban experience and an existential sadness endures. The most freshly cast Segal figures are as powerful and mysterious as ever. The centerpiece of the current show, “Street Crossing,” presents seven figures, men and women, fixed at random points at an urban intersection, entirely oblivious of one another. The familiar scene reproduces on Mr. Segal observed while traveling on a bus towards downtown Manhattan. These white figures poised on tar paper contrast with the show’s other sculptures of lone individuals in quotidian scenes, painted wholly in black and placed beneath lights that give the pieces the eerie quality of a photographic negative or the subtle shadings of a Rembrandt etching. A thoughtful, unpretentious man with steely hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Mr. Segal is not the brooding personality that his sculptures might suggest. “I grew up during the Depression, which surprisingly was not a grim, unhappy time internally,” he said. “I was a kid growing up, loved, let free to wander, never considered myself lonely. Certain teachers pointed me to museums, pointed me to libraries, pointed me to extraordinary architecture, extraordinary possibilities, political ideals of equality, meritocracy. Growing up in the Depression in New York was an unfolding of possibilities delivered by my teachers along with the visible grimness, decay, poverty, moaning, groaning and Jewish grief, but always coupled with a respect for intellectual life, respect for classical music — the possibilities of a better life and more fulfillment.” The artist laughs at a description of a fashionably clad woman with a shopping bag who beat a hasty exit from his current show after cursory inspection. “Not happy art,” she pronounced to her companion. “These people look so discouraged. I was much happier at Steuben.” Mr. Segal, dressed in jeans, running shoes and a black synthetic windbreaker, responds with a shrug. “I grant completely that this show is not necessarily cheerful entertainment.” Mr. Segal grew up in the Bronx, where his Russian-born father ran a kosher butcher shop, memorialized in a 1945 tableau in which the figure of his mother Sophie verges on the slaughter of a chicken behind a plate glass window inscribed with Hebrew lettering. “I’m a Jew of another generation,” the sculptor told the Forward. “I’m Jewish but I’m equally shaped by Diaspora birth and intimate exposure to ideas alien to the shtetl.” Along with several other Jewish families who sought an American version of the agrarian Zionist dream, Jacob Segal eventually left the Bronx for New Jersey where he started a chicken farm. George Segal later tried to make a go of the farm to support his family after studying art at Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, New York University and Rutgers University. Since the early 1960s, Mr. Segal’s work has been purchased by leading museums and private collections in the United States, Europe and Japan. Success enabled him to give up teaching art at New Jersey junior high schools and community colleges, to convert the entire 300-foot chicken coop into studio space and to install a swimming pool in front of the adjacent farm house where he and his wife raised their son and daughter. He turned to sculpture from painting in the late 1950s in response to the rigidity of the then prevalent Abstract Expressionism. In the “Legend of Lot,” created in 1958, a rough hewn Lot stands before a painting of his daughters. The figure was born of chicken wire and plaster readily at hand on the farm. ‘Painting and sculpture are considered rigid classifications in art, and an awful lot of my work has to do with how I can translate what I see in the real world and combine it with what I’m feeling inside,” Mr. Segal said. “Most artists are involved with kind of difficult synthesis. It dawns on me that I can be reading a newspaper at breakfast, and here it is, strange black marks on a white page, able to provoke a range of images or thoughts in my head. And I glance up from my paper and see my wife and start talking to her. I can click back and forth with fluid ease. So why this implacable boundary between painting and sculpture. I’ve been trying to deal with it, in these pieces.” Biblical themes are something Mr. Segal has often explored, twice in public commissions that generated controversy. He chose Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac for monuments at both Kent State University, where National Guardsmen shot dead anti-Vietnam protestors in 1970, and for an Israeli commission to be placed at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. “I decided the Kent State situation had all the elements of Greek tragedy,” he said. “Older people were outraged at the lack of patriotism on the part of the students and were furious in demanding punishment. And it reminded me intensely of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son to prove his faith in an invisible demanding God. This was a metaphor to refer to the tragic contradiction of Kent State.” The school, however, rejected the sculpture and it ended up, instead, at Princeton University. In Israel, Mr. Segal’s Biblical reference was seen by some as implied criticism that the Jewish state was blindly dispatching its children off to war. Other public works by Mr. Seal include a monument to gay liberation in Greenwich Village, an homage to steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco, a version of which is now being reinstalled in the expanded quarters of the New York Jewish Museum. Mr. Segal is also preparing a series of sculptures for a new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., an outdoor garden designed by landscape architect Lawerence Halprin and tentatively due for completion in 1996. Rather than any heroic depiction of the New Deal president, Mr. Segal has proposed three sculptures relating to “ordinary people in Depression sites or states of mind.” While he speaks willingly of his art, Mr. Segal is less forthcoming about his interior world. “I suppose after any artist has worked long enough, they expose their inner life in the accumulation of the work,” he said. “Most artists I know can’t control their own natures. Everybody works with their brain and intelligence. Good art is about celebration of life primarily, in spits of my gloom and doom. It’s about the free exercise of mind. It’s an optimism. It’s about celebrating consciousness of being alive.”